Just when you thought the 2008 election was over, the “three amigos” from the losing side of the campaign–Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsay Graham (R-SC), and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) have reappeared, this time astride the issue of assistance to the Libyan resistance. McCain, who got most of the publicity in 2008 as the GOP standard bearer, was out front this time as well, trooping through the streets of Banghazi, the informal capital of the rebellion,to the cheers and waving U.S. flags by the grateful population.
The message that the three friends and allies articulated was straightforward: the United States should do more to help the anti-Gadhafi forces overthrow the government and establish a new, anti-Gadhafi regime. All three stopped short of, and even renounced, the insertion of American ground forces into the fray, but they also clearly indicated that they believed the United States should assert itself decisively in the cause to overthrow the Gadhafi regime after 42 years in power.
Is this good advice? Do the three senators really have a valid point, and is it the kind of expression of US foreign policy that could guide future actions? Neither question is easy to answer, but one when tries, the wisdom of the suggestion becomes less and less obvious.
At one level, the MGL (McCain-Graham-Lieberman) advocacy is nothing more than the update of the Nixon Doctrine, which was basically an explanation of how and why the United States would treat communist attempts to break out of the containment line in the wake of the American withdrawal from Vietnam. In essence, it said the United States supported countries resisting communism and would come to their aid with things like material support and training, but that the insertion of American forces was off the table unless overwhelming American interests were involved (e.g. an action in Western Europe). We would, in other words, send money and equipment and even train indigenous personnel how to use it, but no American blood. The MGL formulation is similar, if one substitutes anti-dictatorial for anti-communist in the equation and adds the US Air Force (at least remotely controlled drones) to the list of tools the US might send to help the rebels. But is this such a good idea?
There is, of course, no shortage of anti-democratic thug regimes in the world, some of whom the United States has traditionally nurtured and supported and, in some instances, continues to help prop up (which may be part of the problem the MGL “solution” seeks to address). How does the United States choose among those it will help and those it will not? The existence of vital American interests that are damaged by the anti-democrats winning/retaining power would be such a criterion, but unequivocally vital US interests are hardly ever involved in these situations. Are they in Libya, whose major contribution to the world is sweet il necessary for Europe but not the US? Is it the openly friendly, pro-democratic (and hence praiseworthy) nature of the insurgents? Who exactly are the Libyan rebels? What do they want? Do they really like us? Nobody, including the MGL team, seems to hasve ready answers to these questions.
What seems more likely, and is certainly hinted at in interviews by the MGL team, is that these actions are necessary to relieve and reverse the inhumane actions of the Libyan government toward its people, a fate that has been made abundantly clear by official and samizdat reportage on the government’s use of force to crush the rebellion. The evidence is pretty clear that the Libyan government is using brutal force to crush its opponents, and seems ready to exact retribution against those who rose against it. Is this a good reason for the United States to involve itself in a decisive way that will obviate that result? Maybe, but….
The rejoinder is almost too simple and obvious to state. Civil uprisings, and especially those that seek to overthrow an existing government and throw out its leaders, are never looked upon or treated benignly by those attacked. Counter-insurgencies seek to crush insurgencies, just as insurgents seek to crush governments. These affairs always have and always will be very emotional, furtive, and thus violent. When one side is overwhelmingly more powerful than the other (e.g. the Syrian government and the protesters), the violence may be swift and one-sided. When the government is internally rotten and about ready to fall anyway (e.g. Egypt), neither side may need to resort to violence, making things neater.
But Libya is not like either of those examples. While the lethal balance clearly resides with the firepower-superior government (a balance MGL’s suggested actions are intended to alter in favor of the insrugents), there is considerable support for the rebels, and neither side has been able to overwhelm the other (although it is not clear how well the rebels would have fared had NATO not intervened from the air). In this case, the rebels have attacked government strongholds and the government has retaliated. Some otherwise innocent civilians have been caught in the crossfire and the government has retaliated against civilians it believes has supported its enemies.
The point is that there is nothing terribly unusual here. Regrettable perhaps, but not unusual. Civil wars, unless they are resolved very quickly one way or the other, are typically very bloody affairs with very high stakes for all involved. The Gadhafi government has without doubt violated the human rights of his population and engaged in crimes against humanity for which he should be held accountable. The problem is that such violations are by no means unusual in civil wars–they are, if anything, the norm and not the exception. If there is evidence that the Libyan government has acted in ways that are particularly and outrageously hideous (making Libya and exception), that evidence is not clear. To repeat, violent, atrocious action by one or both sides is not unusual in civil war.
If this is true, the MGL advocacy of tipping the balance in Libya away from the government amounts to a new policy criterion for the use of American military force–let’s call it the “Three Amigos Doctrine” (TAD). The core of that doctrine is that the United States disapproves of any civil war that breaks out anywhere in the world and should be prepared to come to the decisive aid of whoever is losing. How many TAD-ites are there among us?